Whether it's an away day in London or a family reunion at a home game, for an exiled fan the matchdays you can experience in person are all the more special
19 November ~ I realised recently that I have now spent over half of my life living down south, always a considerable distance from Preston. Last year I moved even further away, to the Kent coast. But despite my southern latitudes, my support for my team only seems to deepen as the years go by. Just as Carrow Road seems only ever reachable by bus replacement service, for some reason the harder it is to take in a Preston game, the keener I seem to get.
It’s certainly not easy. Sometimes following Preston from afar can seem like one indignity after another, traipsing round Folkestone’s harbourside pubs in the rain, begging them to show a rare North End live appearance on Sky Sports. “Preston? Is that Champions League?” a barmaid once asked me. Sometimes it’s easier to lie, say yes and hope you don’t get caught, though I suspect it’s some time before we shall see PNE and Havant & Waterlooville face off in an elite European competition rather than the FA Cup first round, as they were that evening. Meanwhile, one romantic relationship almost ended when I insisted on going to watch a hapless 3-1 defeat in Yeovil – Graham Westley’s last game “in charge” as manager – and ended up back home some time around midnight.
It is night matches that generally pose the greatest problem as last train times invariably rule out attendance much further afield than London, including, sadly, home games in PR2. But similar problems occur for Preston fans based in Lancashire. Just how feasible for them are games in Bristol, Bournemouth and Middlesbrough on a Tuesday night? Hard-to-attend fixtures are a problem as old as nationwide leagues and, if anything, at least they channel support en masse to more easily accessible contests.
For North Enders these are often games in London. The high-speed West Coast Main Line always ensures a great turnout from the north and it’s very rare for us to not sell out our allocation, while keeping several Euston pubs in business (albeit with a few more North End Soul stickers decorating the men’s urinals). There’s always a great atmosphere, all the more so if it happens to be Gentry Day, an annual celebration where North End fans wear bowler hats and suits. The tradition dates from the 1970-71 season, when manager Alan Ball Snr described Preston’s impressive support as “the gentry”.
It’s great to bump into someone I know, even if I have to endure ribbing for having acquired “southern” habits. One of these was wearing a smart coat to a game at Leyton Orient – slightly overcast, I maintain – when many of the fanbase had opted for replica shirts and shorts. The faraway fan can’t help but feel distanced from his team, though of course now they’re never closer, whatever the time of day. For all its faults, the internet has enriched football support for people in my situation and further afield. YouTube highlights, Twitter online journalism (Preston fans are very fortunate in the shape of the Lancashire Evening Post’s Dave Seddon to get excellent coverage of the club on and off the field) all keep me so much better informed than was ever possible in the past. I’m only in my 30s but when I first left for university, the odd matchday programme in the post was about all that was remotely practical for sustaining a North End fan outside the north-west. Now we can see a video on WhatsApp of a player banging in multiple goals during the warm-up (it’s an infrequent occurrence in the actual games).
But perhaps the more you’re in touch, the more you miss. Sometimes the only thing for it is a trip to Deepdale. The new automated turnstiles might baffle me and the catering staff might view my enthusiasm for butter pies with suspicion, but these are trifling concerns when I step out on the terrace with my family and look at the pitch. Five generations of us have watched football here now. Someone nearby – I know their face if not their name, though they’ve stood then sat by us for years – asks me if I’ve come home. “Yes,” I reply, “I think I have.” Ben Cottam
Photo by Colin McPherson / WSC Photos